The Yamuna slithers through the heart of Delhi, across a 22 km stretch. It enters the city at Palla in the North, brimming with zest, vigour and bounty and it leaves Delhi at Jaitpur in the South.
Delhi has never been kind to Yamuna, but Yamuna has given, and continues to give, a lot to the city. The river provides drinking water to the citizens of Delhi, which is sourced up north at the Wazirabad barrage before the river heads down south where Delhi’s neglect and misuse of the river begins. The water Delhiites drink is, as one bottled water brand quite potently articulates it, ‘raw, rare and remarkable after being filtered through layers of Himalayan rock’.
But this is not the only bounty that the river offers to Delhi. Yamuna’s floodplains have been home to thousands of families, who have been living here for decades. Some of these dwellers are farmers who have tilled and cultivated these lands into rich and plentiful farms that feed the city. These floodplains provide residence and are a source of income and livelihood for these families. Yet, these families have been branded as encroachers of these lands, a trivial hindrance to what could be a world-class riverfront in the capital city of a global superpower. To pave the way for the Yamuna Riverfront Development Project, the city of Delhi, through the Delhi Development Authority [DDA], has been conducting many eviction drives across the floodplains for over two decades now.
This project tries to understand the experience of forced eviction and discuss the kind of impact such displacement has on people’s lives. This is explored by looking at the story of Iqbal, a former resident of the Yamuna floodplains whose home was demolished by the DDA in lieu of the Yamuna Riverfront Development Project.
The Story of Iqbal
‘Aaj bhi agar main woh manzar yaad karta hun, toh tan badan mein aag lag jaati hai’ (Even today, if I remember that moment, a fire rages across my body).
My meeting with Iqbal was not planned or even solicited; it just happened. I wanted to visit Golden Jubilee Park, also known as Asita West. This park was amongst the first projects built under the ambit of the Yamuna Riverfront Development Project and was critical to my study. The closest metro station to the park was Chandni Chowk, along the yellow line. I managed to find my way out of the maze of streets behind which the station is tucked and emerged at Bhai Mati Das Chowk, where I found a lot of electric and pedal rickshaw-wallas.
I found a local rickshaw driver and asked him if he’d take me to Golden Jubilee Park. He didn’t know of any such park. I tried explaining that there’s a park on the banks of Yamuna, but he insisted that he didn’t know of any such park. Two other rickshaw-wallas gave me a similar response. The fourth one knew of the place but didn’t know how to get there. However, he did know of somebody who could take me there. He shouted to his friend, ‘Are Iqbal ko lekar aao, Jamnaji jaana hai’(Hey! Get Iqbal here. We need to go to the Yamuna). While I waited for Iqbal, I couldn’t help but wonder why nobody knew about the park. Do the people who travel by public transport not visit the park very often? Is the park only to be accessed by urban middle-class people with private vehicles? Or was I unable to explain where I wanted to go?
Iqbal’s voice cut my trail of thought. ‘Kahan jaana hai’? (Where do you need to go?) He was a middle-aged man. I, somehow, expected him to be younger. I worked my way backwards this time and began to explain how there’s a park by the banks of the Yamuna, when he cut me short and asked ‘Golden Jubilee’? He already knew the place. Iqbal had a pedal rickshaw and after deciding upon a fare, I hopped on, and we set off.
While on our way, Iqbal said, ‘Ye jo aap jahan jaa rahe ho, wahan pehle mera ghar hua karta tha’ (The place you’re going to, my home used to be there earlier).
‘Jis basti ko hataakar park banaya gaya, aap wahan rehte the?’ (The slum that was demolished to construct the park, you lived there?) He nodded. He told me that his family lived in a basti that had existed on the very same land that this park is situated on today. The basti, which went by Dataram Basti, was home to around 1000 families like his own. Both of his parents were born in Dataram Basti. His family had been living there for generations, for more than almost fifty years. His father earned a livelihood by selling scrap in the nearby Gandhinagar market and also had a small motor mechanic shop right outside the basti.
In 2004-2005, the DDA declared that the entire Dataram Basti was going to be evicted, in lieu of the development of the park, and all the families would be offered a resettlement plot of 24 gaj (216 sq ft) in Bawana, only if they were able to pay a sum of Rs. 5000. Bawana is over 30 km away from where Dataram Basti was situated. Now, all the families that would have accepted the resettlement would be pushed to the fringes of the city, resulting in loss of livelihood, education and community.
Some neighbourhoods housed the more prosperous families while others housed the less prosperous ones. There were a lot of families from the poorer neighbourhoods, like Iqbal’s, that could not afford the resettlement package, and there was no redressal offered to families like his. He distinctly remembers the chaos when the Delhi Development Authority’s JCBs rolled into the basti. His father was trying to negotiate with the officials and in the process, they broke his legs and threw him out of the area. Iqbal shared that the people who had come in with the JCBs, in collusion with some of the more influential people from the basti, set fire to their own JCBs to make it seem like the basti was responsible for the vandalism.
Iqbal’s father cried the day they had to leave the basti. The family spent the next few years in extreme precarity, living in railway jhuggis along the tracks up north. He says, ‘Hum chote chote the, kaise humne khana guzara kiya hai, kaise hum patri pe rahe hain, woh hum aur humara dil jaanta hai’ (We were really young, how we survived living next to railway tracks, that only me and my heart know of). His father passed away five years later. Iqbal said that his father who had built his home in Dataram Basti had to breathe his final breath in a rented house, and it was evident that this grief is something that Iqbal will always carry with him. Many other families from the basti suffered a similar fate. Iqbal shares that in the aftermath of the eviction, fuelled by the precarity and poverty brought upon by the displacement, many people committed suicide. He says, ‘Hum yahan teen chaar peedi se reh rahein the, jab hataya toh humaari sunwayi bhi nahi ki gayi’(We had been living here for 3-4 generations, when we were evicted, they didn’t even hold a hearing for us).
Clearly, this has left a lasting impact on Iqbal. First, his family and community was subjected to violence. Second, their treatment was entirely overlooked by the citizenry and the judiciary, making them feel unheard and invisible. Third, even after two decades, it seems like it has been difficult for Iqbal’s family to recover and process the loss, both material and immaterial, that the eviction had caused.
As unfortunate as it is, Iqbal’s story is not unique. Each of the evictions along the Yamuna, be it for the Golden Jubilee Park, the Akshardham temple or the Commonwealth Games Village, have raised concerns of mistreatment and administrative oversight, leaving many of these families deeply scarred and disenfranchised.
Their homes and their livelihoods have been taken away from them, but the loss is not just material in nature. The people have been looted of their community, collective memory and right to the city. Many of them have had to leave and resettle themselves on the fringes of the city. Delhi has managed to push many of them out, close enough so that they can service the city, but far enough that they’ll be doing it from the outside.
I got off the rickshaw and saw a slew of bikes and cars parked in the service road leading up to the park. The park was as trimmed and manicured as it could be, fit to be a dinner venue to host any event of splendour and pomp.